Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Bilbao Baggins

Whether or not Manchester United believe that they are too proud or esteemed a club to be in the Europa League, rather than the Champions League, that is where their under-par performances have landed them this season. That said, with the group stages already out of the way, the competition has thrown up some rather tasty match-ups. Games that look very “European” - with the old-fashioned, pre-champions league meaning of the word – on paper, at least.

Manchester United vs. Ajax is a fixture to stir the soul of Europe-past – and the games actually provided a very enjoyable few hours, collectively (admittedly, United’s poor home performance gave the tie more impetus than it should have had after the first leg) – this Europa League lark isn’t so bad after all...

Next up is Athletic Bilbao. Nostalgia takes hold again. It may be tainted by my knowledge and support of Manchester United, but to me, it looks once more like a proper old-fashioned European Cup tie. There were famous tussles between Athletic and United in the late 1950s – the ill-fated Busby babes progressing at the Basque club’s expense back in the ’56-’57 season.
The fixture also stirs up much more recent memories for me, to 2001.
As a child, I had harboured thoughts of being a journalist or a writer of some sort – until, at A-level time, I had my head turned by the thought of practising Law. This choice was also quickly shelved, when I realised I wasn’t very good, began work in an office, and got used to seeing a pay-check every month.

At the time that the Champions League was in its early incarnation, European football was still an exciting, exotic arm of the game, open only to the elite. AC Milan were kings.
I married in to a Spanish family and in my efforts to ingratiate myself to the Father-in-law, quickly became aware of a whole-new world of football, which sky (and channel 4, with Football Italia) was making its first tentative steps in. The words “el Classico” had not yet entered our everyday footballing vocabulary, and football trips in to Europe were still a rare and unpredictable beast.

I soon became enchanted by the team from the industrial north of Spain. The Basque Country, to be precise – a region – nay, country, that sees its history and present as a separate entity to the rest of Spain. This team spurned all that was exotic about La Liga – with an English-sounding name, Athletic Club. They sounded English, wore English-style shirts, played an English-style game – in fact, have a long history peppered with Englishness. The fact that the club has a self-imposed embargo on signing “non-Basque” players just added to my curiosity.

Around 1999 I began to write short articles, just for fun, and sent some off to the United fanzine, UWS. Flushed with the success of most being printed, and a half-page stint in FourFourTwo, I had a been bitten by the writing bug again. So when Athletic Bilbao came to a town near me on a pre-season friendly in 2001 (vs. Bolton Wanderers) – I had to be there. Surely everyone would want to hear about the Club’s extraordinary success in the face of such restrictions?

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